Today I’m excited to welcome crime writer Ruth Ware onto the blog to talk about her first draft process.
Ruth Ware grew up in Lewes, in Sussex. After graduating from Manchester University she moved to Paris, before settling in North London. She has worked as a waitress, a bookseller, a teacher of English as a foreign language and a press officer. She is married with two small children, and In a Dark, Dark Wood is her début thriller.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I tend to sit back and let the ideas marinate a bit. Sometimes what feels like an incredibly exciting idea just doesn’t fill out into a novel-shaped project for whatever reason. It’s usually only by waiting and letting the characters and plot form inside my head that I know whether there’s a book-sized story to tell.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
Well yes, I guess, but it’s a very boring one in that I wait for a clear stretch of time and then open up a word document and start typing! I always start at the beginning and write until I get to the end. I’m not one of these people who can jump around within the text (although inevitably a fair amount of reshuffling goes on once I’ve finished the book). If my editor needs it, I try to do a synopsis at this stage, but it’s often quite a rough outline.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Straight to keyboard – I haven’t written longhand since I was in my teens, and I think the muscles have wasted away to such an extent I’d struggle to do anything longer than a postcard.
How important is research to you?
Hmm… this is a tough one. I’d say it’s both very important, and not very important! Very important because I care a lot about getting things right – it really annoys me when I see factual errors in books, so I try to minimise that as much as I can (although there’s always the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld would say). Research is also a significant source of inspiration for me – there’s nothing more satisfying than stumbling on a little factual nugget that opens up a new plot line. But it’s also not as important as it might be, as I’ve tended (so far, anyway) to write about landscapes that I know about, at least on an emotional level. I don’t write police procedurals or spy thrillers with a lot of highly technical detail outside my expertise, so in that sense, the bulk of the action comes from a place you can’t research – the human heart.
How do you go about researching?
Oh, books, the internet, shameless abuse of friends and relations and their contact lists… same as most authors I imagine! I tend to do a certain amount of research before I start – just to make sure I’ve got the bones of the plot correct – and then after that I do it on an as-and-when basis, whenever a question comes up.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
99% of the time, I keep it all in my head. I am always impressed by authors who have super organised filing systems, or whiteboards full of notes and post-its and ideas. I don’t. I squirrel stuff away in my mind, and trust that it will rise to the surface when I need it. If it doesn’t, I conclude it probably wasn’t that interesting in the first place. I have a paragraph of running plot notes at any one time which sits at the bottom of my word document as I type, and says things like “don’t forget diary. J = brown eyes. K born 1982. Next go and see A’s old friend – big argument?” They get deleted as they stop being useful or I tick them off, so it’s a bit like a sort of running memo / literary to do list.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
Well, as above, I tend to start at the beginning and write until I get to the end. I edit as I go (I usually read my way into the text by editing the previous day’s writing) so the end result is usually fairly clean. That doesn’t mean there’s not significant editing still to do – often I’ll only spot some element that’s not working when I go back and re-read it – but the document that I finally type “the end” onto is not usually radically different from the published book, just a little rougher around the edges and maybe missing some seasoning. There’s always work to be done in terms of streamlining or bringing out parts that need highlighting, but equally there are long chunks of my novels that are pretty much verbatim what I handed into my editor.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
Nope. I am a very pragmatic writer – the only thing I need is peace and quiet and a computer (although I am getting fussier about my keyboard and desk, after a spate of trouble with a bad back).
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
When it’s going well, the outside world absolutely does melt away, in fact I sometimes have to set my alarm to remind myself to pick up the kids from school, otherwise I can get down to it at 9.30 and look up to find that I’ve written right through lunch and I’m late for the school run. However there are days of course when it’s not like that (many, many days, sometimes!) and then I have to work much harder to block out the temptation to check Facebook… make a sandwich… sort out the man who’s coming to clean the gutters… etc etc. It just depends.
What does your workspace look like?
I work in our spare bedroom, which is a converted attic at the top of our house. It’s three very tall flights of stairs from the front door to my desk, so it keeps me fit running up and down stairs to make coffee and answer the door! I have a big desk, large enough for my computer and two or three stacks of manuscript paper. I can’t bear feeling cramped in by teetering piles of paper. There’s a window to my right which looks out over the north London rooftops, but my husband is always baffled that, more often than not, I pull the blinds. In front of me is a tiled composition of roofs and windows that my dad made, and a framed sketch by my old jobsharer, Kate, as well as a box of desk clutter. It’s fairly orderly and the walls are painted a cool lichen-coloured green, which helps to keep me calm when the writing isn’t going well!
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
Edit as I go… within limits. I tend to leave structural stuff to the end.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
I don’t count words. I think it’s a false measure of progress – there are days when I delete more than I write, and end up 500 words down, but if they were 500 rubbish words, that can still be a better day’s work than a day when you end up with a positive word count. I just have a rough sense of when my deadline is, and how much work I’ve got to do before I get there.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
It takes anything from 3-6 months usually, depending on how much else is going on in my life (personal and writerly). It’s probably pretty readable in terms of the individual paragraphs, but there’s likely macro work to be done in terms of plot, character and structure.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
I usually do an initial read on an e-reader, which helps me to see it through different eyes, and stops me from fiddling as I go through (because my e-reader doesn’t have a note function). And then I do another read on paper, making editorial notes as I go.
What happens now that first draft is done?
If possible, I like to put it in a drawer for a few weeks and then go back to it with fresh eyes for a really stiff edit. In practice though, it depends how close I am to deadline and how angsty my editor is getting! But no matter what, I try to give myself a day off when I’ve completed a manuscript. It still feels like a big deal to have got 100,000 words out on paper.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
In A Dark, Dark Wood
In a dark, dark wood there was a dark, dark house
Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s bachelorette party arrives. Is this a chance for Nora to finally put her past behind her?
And in the dark, dark house there was a dark, dark room
But something goes wrong. Very wrong.
And in the dark, dark room…
Some things can’t stay secret for ever.